Lead Article

The Changing Face of China’s Church

The church in China does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it is experiencing unprecedented change that mirrors the rapid pace of change in society at large. Caught up in this vortex, the question is, “Can the church keep up and adapt itself for effective witness in 21st century China?”

A Rapidly Changing Society

While societal changes are many, there are several that wield great influence. Urbanization is one that is reflected in the ratio of rural to urban dwellers which will soon be 60 to 40 compared with 80 to 20 just a few years ago. The result is massive dislocation that includes a “floating population” of seasonal and permanent migrants numbering in the tens of millions. Economic development, which under Deng Xiaoping had been rapid for two decades, now seems to be slowing due to the economic meltdown in Southeast Asia. China has survived but faces serious problems with inefficient State-controlled industries. Millions are becoming unemployed and the government fears the social unrest that is on the increase.

Loosening of control at the grass-roots level has led to a fragmentation of society allowing much greater freedom in travel, but also resulting in a huge increase in crime, drug-use, the spread of AIDS and other evils. While civil society is vastly freer now than when under Mao, it has also experienced a downside. The ideological vacuum that came with the collapse of Maoism as a pesudofaith has led to a “crisis of faith” in Marxism and a great resurgence of religion, especially Christianity, Buddhism, folk-religion and new cults. The spread of materialism and, in some cases particularly with the urban youth, hedonism and nihilism as well, causes young people to seek out business opportunities and strive to “get ahead”. All this presents a challenge to the church, which must adapt to a rapidly changing environment while remaining true to the eternal message of Christ.

The Changing Face of the Church

Government policy towards religion and the church. This policy, granting limited authority under the Communist Party leadership, was codified in 1982 in Document 19. Ten years ago there was hope for radical change and perhaps even the dismantling of repressive structures of control; however, the events in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 ended it. Since then, government policy at central and local levels has sought to restrict and repress all unregistered religious activities. Policy documents have all become more detailed, compared to those issued in the ’80s, as authorities seek to close loopholes. The last few years have seen a serious increase in repression of unregistered house churches in many areas, especially in Henan, Anhui and Jiangsu. However, this policy has become more and more out of touch with reality, as local officials observe the positive effects of Christianity and as society, in general, loosens up, allowing for greater freedom for Christians in spite of government policy. Over the long term, something will have to “give.”

The Three Self Patriotic Movement and China Christian Council. The retirement of Bishop Ding a couple of years ago has allowed the TSPM/CCC to fall into the hands of the older TSPM leaders from the ’40s and ’50s with their liberal theology. This is a step backwards. However, a younger generation of TSPM/CCC graduates, many of whom are more open and genuinely evangelical, is coming to the fore. In the long term, the future of the TSPM/CCC is problematic, as its fifties-engendered control system is increasingly anachronistic and deeply resented by many Chinese Christians including many TSPM pastors.

The TSPM/CCC churches have now had twenty years of relative freedom during which an impressive infrastructure has been built. According to the most recent TSPM statistics, there are 13,000 churches, 35,000 registered meeting-points, 20 seminaries and over 20 million Bibles that have been legally printed in the country. While the TSPM has provided the legal framework for this, it should not be forgotten that these achievements owe far more to millions of committed Christians all over China using meager resources and contributing in a spirit of self-sacrifice.

I believe the TSPM affiliated churches have been influenced by the Spirit of revival just as the house churches have, providing a strong counter-current to the control and limitation imposed by the authorities. Churches and pastors vary. In some, the Holy Spirit has the upper hand and much is being accomplished for the Lord; in others, the dead hand of the State and formalism crush the church.

The house-churches. The house church movement has grown, diversified and matured in recent years. Several “streams” have appeared, some claiming millions of members. In some areas the house churches have their own buildings and have functioned semi-openly. In recent years, particularly the last three, the issue of registration has come to the fore and has caused division. Some house churches have registered, seeing government recognition as the only way to continue effective ministry. In some cases they have been allowed to carry on unhindered while in others they have been bitterly disappointed. Their leaders have been dismissed and replaced by those acceptable to the TSPM and restrictions have been placed upon them. Many other churches have vigorously resisted registration on the theological grounds that Christ is the Head of the church. They are prepared to go underground again and risk persecution rather than allow the State or the TSPM to interfere in church affairs. There are cases where churches appear to have been allowed to register with the government without accepting TSPM control; however, this is unusual. In general, the situation differs by area and in many areas there has been a significant tightening in recent years.

While theological differences have emerged on some issues, in most cases these reflect the vigorous growth of the church and its concern for biblical truth but, on occasion, are indications of personal rivalries among strong leaders. Overall, there has been a significant advance in the maturity of the house church movement. This was expressed in August 1998 as several of the largest groupings issued a joint statement appealing for dialogue with the government, an end to persecution and the release of Christian prisoners. The tone was irenic with no denunciation of either the government or TSPM. This maturity was also reflected in a joint “Confession of Faith” which was issued a few months later to show the world that house churches are not cults (as is often claimed by the authorities and TSPM). The confession very clearly showed that mainline house churches are biblical evangelicals with a high orthodox view of the Bible, the Trinity and the person of Christ. For the most part, they hold to traditional premillenial eschatology and are open to charismatic gifts while avoiding extremism. The response of the authorities in late ’98 and early ’99 was to instigate several mass arrests of house church Christians in Henan— an indication that they are unwilling to stop repression and engage in dialogue. However, for the first time, the house churches gained the initiative and won positive international publicity.

The new generations. There is no more stark contrast than that between generations in China. We often forget that leaders today in their eighties and nineties were born prior to 1911 in imperial times when the pigtail was still obligatory and the 2,000 year-old Confucian examination system still held sway. Older leaders, who suffered during the fifties and the Cultural Revolution are still highly respected throughout the Chinese church. While the death of Wang Mingdao in 1990 marked the end of an era, those who suffered and survived passed on a priceless heritage of biblical truth and living testimony that ensured the survival and revival of the church in the seventies and eighties.

Nevertheless, a whole middle generation is often now missing. Today, a much younger generation in their twenties and thirties is emerging. In the cities, the more affluent ones sport mobile phones and wear designer jeans. These Christians “knew not Mao”; for them the Cultural Revolution is only history. The first two decades of the 21st century will similarly see the emergence of another young generation who “knew not Deng.” Between the older and younger leaders a tension exists. Under the TSPM system many promising theological graduates return to provincial cities only to find themselves barred from effective spiritual ministry. Still, despite many hindrances, a keen younger generation of leaders is emerging across China in both house churches and within the TSPM.

The rural/urban divide. Some areas of China are still extremely backward. Recently I visited Miao villages in south China where people were living in hovels more like cowsheds than homes. About 50 million people are still classified by the government as living in extreme poverty (the UN believes the real figure is over 200 million). Probably over 70% of the church is comprised of peasants— many of them caught in the poverty trap. A huge number of people in the countryside are either fully or seasonally unemployed. Millions head for the cities in an unending “blind tide.” The Three Gorges Dam project alone is uprooting about two million people, many of whom are being thrown into dire poverty.

All these factors impact the church. Promising young leaders are forced by poverty to go to the cities to become taxi drivers or entrepreneurs; many have been forced to leave full-time or part-time ministry in the struggle to survive. Many rural churches are barely able to function; the poverty of their members is unbelievable by our standards.

In the cities, mass unemployment now looms and is already endemic in some regions. Some churches are reaching out to the poor in their midst by conducting literacy classes. Others are holding clinics. Under the TSPM system, it now seems that in many areas churches may engage in a much broader scope of social action. In some areas political constraints still restrict such initiatives but, in general, the situation is opening up. The likelihood that social conditions will continue to deteriorate as the economic recession bites means that churches are faced with a vast field for practical Christian ministry such as drug rehabilitation, ministry to AIDS sufferers, serving in orphanages and work with the blind, mentally or physically handicapped to name a few.

Continuing church growth. The last 25 years have seen the greatest growth of the church since Pentecost—in Mainland China! The national TSPM leadership admits to 13 to 15 million believers, but provincial TSPM leaders have issued figures totaling nearly 18 million. This indicates 18-fold growth over the last three decades. However, the real figure is probably closer to 50 million.[1] This growth has many underlying reasons, but the bottom line is that many areas in China are experiencing a genuine revival. In Lanzhou I witnessed 250 people being baptized. In Liaoning I saw hundreds gathering at 6 a.m. in the pitch dark to prepare for an 8 a.m. service that was packed with 1,000 worshippers. The pastor told me that in 1995, one thousand people had been saved and added to his congregation! This is genuine revival.

Growth brings its own problems—not the least of which are the lack of trained leadership and the inroads of false teaching. In Jiangsu province the ratio of registered pastors to Christians is 1 to 10,000, while in Henan it is 1 to 50,000 and in Anhui only 1 to 60,000![2] The 1,200 theological students in seminary training at any one time are only a tiny drop in the ocean. Large numbers of part-time workers are trained during the agricultural slack seasons, but there is a chronic lack of trained leadership. House churches have their own training programs, some excellent and others very poor. Many overseas Christians are now involved in leadership training, a strategic and vital area for reinforcement that requires careful strategy, much field work, cooperation and humility.

The rise of cults. Another downside of growth is the spread of heresy. Since the “Shouters” became active in the early 80s, the Chinese church has been bedeviled by an increasing number of cults, many of them homegrown. There are the Lingling, Beiliwang (Established King), Lightning from the East, Cold Water, Disciples, Wilderness Sect as well as others. We must not overlook the fact that Buddhism, Daoism, folk-religion and secret societies are again flourishing in China, providing a spawning ground for syncretistic cults on the fringes of orthodox Christianity.

How widespread is the problem? Recently government researchers estimated that up to 100,000 people had been affected by the Disciples in Guizhou province. The total number of Shouters has been estimated at 250,000. Based on such figures, I guesstimate that between 5% and 10% of China’s “Christians” may be members of cultic groups. The situation is serious but not yet chronic. Efforts are being made to circulate books and booklets against the cults by both the CCC and the house churches, but materials are inadequate. Much more could be done by providing literature, tapes and broadcasts to support our brothers and sisters in their spiritual warfare against deception.

Another serious aspect of the cult phenomenon is the attitude of the authorities and the TSPM. Since cults are seen as subversive to society and the State, they are targets for suppression. The strange, hybrid alliance of the TSPM with the Communist authorities as an official “State church” can be traced back to longstanding Confucian attitudes towards heterodoxy in Imperial times. In the case of Christianity, the devastation caused in the 1850s by the Taiping Rebellion has not been forgotten. A weird, but potent blend of Old Testament religion with folk-religion provided the fanatical impulse behind a political movement that led to 20 million people being killed. The authorities today have lost their former tight control of the countryside and are very nervous that secret societies and cults might become a focus for political subversion. The unexpected mass demonstrations in the center of Beijing in April 1999 by the Falungong cult and its subsequent repression are further proof of the government’s fear of sectarian movements. In ignorance, or sometimes deliberately, central and local authorities target orthodox evangelical unregistered Christians for arrest, fines and other harassment despite their protestations of orthodoxy and non-involvement in politics. They need our prayers.

The impact of the West. When I first went to Beijing in 1973, there was no advertising; rather billboards with quotes from Mao decorated every street corner. Now, McDonalds and KFC have invaded every major city and the trappings of Westernization are seen everywhere. With capitalism now condoned, Western materialism, colliding with the innate propensity of the Chinese to make money, produces a heady—and in some cases ugly—mix. We may ask, “What is to be done?” in the face of such enormous needs and problems along with opportunities for the gospel. The danger is that we shall rush in with plenty of enthusiasm, and perhaps plenty of money, and wreak havoc with the best of intentions. Let us stand back and try to view the overall situation impassively.

The revival of the last three decades has been a work of God through a totally indigenous movement. The missionaries had been expelled by 1952. Radio and literature work had significant impact beginning in the late 70s, but otherwise, until recently, Western input and impact was minimal. We must face the fact that God, through His suffering people, raised up to Himself a glorious church without our programs, money or involvement—but not apart from our prayers.

Now, however, the situation is significantly different. Overseas involvement is growing all the time—not just from North America, but from South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Europe, Australia and many other countries. In China, the “Three Self” principles are being frayed very thin as churches write letters thinly disguising their begging for funds to help build bigger buildings (no doubt very much needed for expanding congregations). House churches are also faced with great temptations when lavish overseas donors dangle vast sums of money in front of them. The great problem for well-meaning Christian donors contributing overseas is accountability. We must face the unpalatable truth that China today is riddled with corruption.

Bishop Ding, prior to his retirement, was greatly worried by the possibility of the resurgence within China of denominationalism financially supported by overseas denominations and missions.[3] Recently I met with young rural house church leaders who struck me as godly, serious individuals effective in ministry. One told me he was working with a network of 20,000 Christians, yet I was told later that often they did not have enough money for food. What message does Western Christian affluence send to poverty-stricken Christians and non-Christians? What temptations does it expose them to?

The much vaunted “unity” under the TSPM/CCC is, in fact, quite fragile. We are on the brink of again imposing a cultural and economic imperialism on the church in China, however well meaning we might be. Handouts are not the way forward. In the old days, when the CIM sought to establish self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating churches in poor rural and tribal areas, the temptation to donate a few dollars to aid the church or its pastor was overwhelming—but was resisted. Rather, believers were encouraged to give sacrificially. Today, it is those same churches that have often become the core of the recent spiritual revival. There is a hard lesson here. God has blessed and honored the suffering and self-sacrifice of His people in China. Now materialism is sweeping the country. Will we, who are ourselves saturated in materialism, unthinkingly further the process and so destroy the independence and very spirituality of the people we wish to aid?

Help from overseas Christians will continue to grow—it is inevitable. It is our task, then, to channel funds and aid in a responsible way that ensures accountability. Much more cooperation and coordination is needed to target increasingly specialized areas of need such as materials for Sunday Schools, the training of Sunday School and youth workers, materials for the illiterate and semi-literate, apologetic books for students and intellectuals and materials in “minority” languages. Too many groups want “their” program or materials translated into Chinese at vast expense because they worked elsewhere in the world, but they do not consider their cultural relevance or that similar materials, produced by other Christian organizations, may be in existence. This is egotism—not evangelism!

We need to work with Christians within China wherever possible as well as with long-standing organizations based in Hong Kong and Taiwan that have great experience in China ministry. We also need to consider the strong emerging church among the Mainland Chinese diaspora in North America and elsewhere. This body is producing strong leaders on the cutting edge of intellectual trends in China and is beginning to produce first-class materials for witness to Chinese intellectuals and scholars.

Final Thoughts

God has seen fit to raise up a vital church in China. Within the next few years, if not already, Mainland Chinese evangelicals will number more than those in the United States and therefore comprise the largest national evangelical church in the world. It is a sobering and encouraging thought that half a century of persecution, repression, harassment and discrimination, far from destroying the church, have seen it grow to perhaps fifty times the size it was on the eve of the Communist victory in 1949. This church is largely biblical and evangelical. I have not touched on specific theological issues, but here would simply point out that while much mainline denominational Christianity in the West has sunk largely into apostasy, and evangelicalism has been increasingly marginalized, in China, zealous and costly adherence to the biblical gospel has resulted in what is probably the greatest revival and church growth in church history.

What have we to learn from their experience and spirituality? What have they to contribute to world evangelism? Could it be that Chinese Mainland Christians harnessed with the affluent and theologically trained overseas Chinese Christian churches will provide the spiritual renewal and impetus for a major surge in worldwide evangelism in the 21st century? We are privileged as we enter the new millennium to learn more of Christ through our Chinese brothers and sisters, to serve them, and to help them fulfill the Great Commission.


  1. ^ Lambert has published detailed statistics in his new book, China’s Christian Millions: The Costly Revival. See the book review in this issue. Ed. 
  2. ^ Based on TSPM figures. 
  3. ^ I share those concerns, perhaps for somewhat different reasons. I recommend Jonathan Bonk’s book Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem (Orbis, 1994). 
Image credit: Underground Church – Hainan by Surfing The Nations via Flickr. 
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Tony Lambert

Tony Lambert is the director for research, Chinese ministries, for OMF International and the author of China's Christian Millions, The Resurrection of the Chinese Church and the recently published Pray for China! A 30 Day Prayer Guide.View Full Bio